As a child, I hated school but loved to learn. Straight rows and worksheets were not the way to engage a boy who was passionate about discovery and movement. For the majority of the time it felt like school was being done TO me instead of FOR me. As a school leader, I know that the classrooms in my school are significantly more interactive and engaging than what I experienced. Through direct observation and listening to students, I know that we still have room to improve.
Over the past few years I have worked in a variety of ways to stay connected to what students experience and how they feel. A couple of years ago, I selected a student and spent the entire day following his schedule. That experience is one that I encourage anyone to opt into if you have the opportunity. I was pleased with the overall instruction and activities that I saw throughout the day. The most challenging part was all the seat time. I still struggle as an adult to sit still for long periods. A funny moment in the day was when the student that I was shadowing asked, “Mr. McCord, are you following me?!” My reply was, “That would be weird wouldn’t it!” He agreed that that would be weird. At the end of the day I did debrief with him to let him know what I was up to.
As educators, we are in a service industry. Successful service involves hearing the customer’s voice. Since our primary customer is the student, opportunities to receive feedback to drive our work is critical. Some of these opportunities I have drawn from were very purposeful, others serendipitous. Here are some of the ways I have captured student voice:
1) Hallway conversations – I am dedicated to the bell being my “call-to-the hall.” Early morning duty, class changes and dismissal duty are rich areas to mine for student voice. I stole a simple but effective conversation starter from Bettendorf High School's Joy Kelly; “How’s your world?” This open-ended question has opened up some enlightening hallway conversation.
2) Small group lunches with the principal – Our token reward system allows kids to purchase a “Lunch with the Principal” pass. Students also are drawn from previously submitted reward bucks to be awarded. The pass allows them to bring a friend and receive a Chick-fil -A lunch. While they are dining on succulent fowl, I ply them with questions. Some of my favorites include:
a. What is your favorite thing about this school?
b. What is one thing you would change about this school if you could?
c. What is one thing that your teacher doesn’t know about you that you wish she did?
3) Creation of a PTSA instead of a PTA. By adding students to our parent-teacher organization, we were purposeful in including students on the Executive Board meetings. This ensures that students have a voice in the many ways that organization plugs into the school.
4) Advisory class visits to conduct action research. In my most recent visits to classes, I explored their opinions about grades, grading practices and standards-based learning. This feedback was fascinating and validated some of my beliefs and challenged others.
5) Invitation to student leaders to present proposals to the administrative team. This is something that we tried for the first time last year. Bringing students into pitch their ideas to the team was validating for the students and inspiring for our administrators. Priceless!
6) Enlistment of your Language Arts teachers to have students do “quick writes” on a specific topic. Although there is a large investment of time involved in reading through the writing, it is well worth it. Knowing the purpose of their writing gives strong relevance to their work and the feedback is rich!
The conversation that sent me down the path to write this post came in May. The young lady that initiated the conversation was my 8th grade videographer working the camera for my daily live announcements. She approached me between classes and said, “Mr. McCord, there is a video you need to see on You Tube. Get out your phone and I will search it for you.” As she handed my phone back, she directed me to watch the video so we could talk about it later. Now you might think that this is pretty presumptuous of a 14-year-old to be so directive with her principal. The reality is that she and I had built a strong connection through daily conversation before and after each announcement. She is the kind of student that speaks directly about things in her world, good and bad. This type of “real talker” is just what I want when it comes to capturing student voice.
As I looked down at my phone screen, I saw that the title of the You Tube video is, “Don’t Stay In School”. (Click here to see the video) My first thought from reading the title of the video was not very positive. My inaccurate assumption was that this would be a message encouraging students to drop out of school. I trusted my student and watched it any way. What I discovered when I clicked on the link was a video that was very thought-provoking and had over 11 million views. The young man was not encouraging anyone to drop out of school. He was challenging the nature of what we focus on in schools. His call was for the system to ensure that what we teach has relevance. His voice was a voice for change.
I had a follow up conversation with my videographer the next day after announcements. I started the conversation off with a simple question to her, “Why did you ask me to watch this video?” Her response was both validating and daunting. She said that she knew that I was a principal who cared about making our school a good place for kids to be. She acknowledged that her experiences in school were better than what was described by the video in some ways. Specifically she celebrated the financial literacy she was working on in math at the time. She went on to say that things still needed to get better. The challenging part of her response was when she said, “Mr. McCord it is your job to make this better.” I wanted to respond to her with a description of what curriculum was and my limitations, but I held my tongue. Her voice was a voice for change.
When I think back to that conversation, I realize how long this problem has persisted. I am a fan of comedy, especially comedy that pokes fun at life. Two comedy skits that help reveal the depth and history of this issue came my mind. The first was the skit “The Five Minute University” performed by the SNL character Father Guido Sarducchi in 1980. (Click here to see the video) This performance is funny, but also saddening in its truth about many college undergraduate experiences. The second skit came from the television classic The Andy Griffith Show. (Click here to see the video) Barney’s painful recitation of The Preamble speaks to a classic case of “mistalgia". Many times we can be dragged back into the past way of doing things because we over-glorify the effectiveness of what went before. Upon reflection, I see that my voice needs to be a voice for change.
So where do we start this conversation? In a political climate that seems to support standardization and reliance on single-measures to judge the success of students, schools and districts, this might seem an impossible chasm to leap. How can content standards accurately predict what a student must know to enter a job market that is continually reinventing itself? These are the questions we need to be talking about. So what is an educator to do? I believe that the biggest payoff will come through supporting our teachers in their role as the designers of engaging experiences. It is not so much the WHAT that we teach as it is the skill set employed by the learner as they learn. The 21st Century Skills framework is one that gives guidance to a skill set that better equips our students for what is to come. What other actions would support increasing the relevance of our student’s learning experiences? I would love to see your comments. Will your voice be a voice for change?